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LOS ANGELES — Boy meets girl. Boy teaches girl how to dance. Boy and girl tear up the town and start a dance craze. Anyone who saw Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze get down and dirty knows how riveting the age-old tale can be. And now might be the time to brush up on your rumba.
“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” a “Dirty Dancing” offspring starring Diego Luna and British newcomer Romola Garai, is due next Valentine’s Day and promises to do for ruffled dresses what the original did for Capri pants.
This story first appeared in the August 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
For costume designer Isis Mussenden, filming in her native Puerto Rico (which stood in for Havana during the four-month shoot) made it even easier to capture the spicy Latin vibe of pre-Revolution Havana. Of course, it all begins with a sweet Fifties-era look — pretty blouses, full skirts and iconic schoolgirl uniforms, which Garai later sheds for the slinkier threads. But all along the way, the costuming provides plenty of visual punch.
“The late Fifties was very romantic, before things got wild and crazy. That kind of sophisticated sexuality through clothes rather than skin is much more interesting to me,” Mussenden says.
Luckily, her leading lady was tailor-made for the clothes — with long limbs, ample curves and alabaster skin. “It would not have been so nice if she had been a twiggy actress,” Mussenden admits.
For her part, Garai says her 30 costume changes helped make the character. “I think Katey is a bit of a slouch in the beginning. I loved her geeky outfits because they represented her really well,” she says. “Then, of course, all the colorful dresses and getting to break into dance was really fun.”
Luna’s wardrobe certainly wasn’t lacking either, with 20 costume changes, mostly button-down shirts and pants. “We fought anyone who wanted him in a T-shirt and jeans because that is an American version of a Latin man. Latin men would never wear that. We tried him in a polo shirt once and he said, ‘Am I going golfing?’ It didn’t work,” Mussenden recalls. Sela Ward, playing Garai’s fashion-forward mom, works classic looks to perfection.
In the beginning of the film, as a young woman not quite comfortable with her new curves but clearly outgrowing her school uniform, Garai hides beneath a black cardigan and prim dresses. But once she starts to loosen up, “We see her go bombshell with the same clothes,” says Mussenden. “She later wears the cardigan alone with a halter top and capris and it’s very Marilyn Monroe. It was the outfit every girl on set wanted to wear.”
Although Mussenden used almost all vintage fabrics and patterns to create the costumes, she also took license when she saw fit. “We wanted to move it in a contemporary direction to appeal to the youth market today,” she explains. “Some of Katey’s clothes needed stretch, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to dance.”
And dance she did. Garai had three important dance dresses, including a slinky shift, worn daringly to a school dance. “She is completely out of place and at the same time she looks amazing,” Mussenden says. “The boys think it’s fab and the girls are jealous.”
The second knockout gown, which she wears in a dance competition, is what Mussenden calls the “wow dress.” It’s a papaya-colored silk shantung number with netting underneath the flared hem.”
Of course, Garai wears real T-strap dance shoes, which haven’t changed much in 50 years, but she also dons some skinny-heeled pumps by Marc Jacobs, who was a schoolmate of Mussenden’s at Parsons. “His success is definitely a sign that this kind of clothing has become fun again,” she says. “He updates it in a way that makes young girls want to wear it — lower in hips, tighter in the thighs. Real Fifties clothes are unwearable because you need girdles and bras to fit into them.”
While Mussenden says no costume designer can predict the trends her work will set, she’s betting that both the sweetness and the glam of the Fifties will continue to fascinate. “I want to run out and wear some of my costumes tomorrow.”